Posts Tagged Author Toolbox

#AuthorToolbox 08: tangled in titles

Via: Daily Prompt – Compromise

 

book title

Media: LinkedIn

 

I first attempted to write a full-fledged novel when I had just completed my ‘O’ levels. While waiting for the results to see which junior colleges I qualified for, I drafted half a novel with the vigor of a hummingbird. Then I spent six years editing the chapters I had written, eventually suspending the project indeterminately with the hope that distance would help me solve how to fill the gaping plot hole that stared back at me every time I pulled up the file. But plot holes isn’t the topic of the day; it’s titles – something that I struggled with for eighteen years before learning to lock in place.

For the longest time, this file was saved as ‘Book’ on my hard drive. After hitting the roadblock in my story, I decided it was finally time to give it a title – you know, for a little variety in occupation. Upon reflecting a great deal about my protagonist, I decided her prickly personality was key and came up with a name that makes me want to molt all the quills in my cap. I changed the file name to ‘Cactus’. No, it wasn’t a book on gardening; yes, it was indeed a romance novel. If ever there was a woodpecker trying to drill a hole in an iron skillet, it was I.

Avian metaphors aside, the title is one of the most versatile marketing tools for a book. Regardless of how brilliant a story is, with a generic title, it may be hard-pressed to attract readers. The title can raise curiosity about the content or suggest a solution to the type of materials a reader is already in search of. It may follow a textual motif that links to a series fiction or become a brand symbol for a product expansion.

 

Even more important than the cover illustration, it not only compels the reader to select a particular book from a pile, ut also becomes a point of reference and recommendation at a later time. The tweet on the right that recently blew up the Internet proves this point well. I think we have all been in the shoes of the reader who requested the red-jacket book. I still haven’t been able to track down this 90’s YA romance novel about makeover and student election and environmental politics that featured a boy, a girl, and a full-length mirror on the cover. I had bought the book through the old Scholastic Book Club order flyers but someone pilfered it from my shelves some twenty years ago. [Note my not-so-subtle cry for help, in case anyone is able to shed light on the title/author]

 

This is what happens when the title lacks one or more of the following CHARACTERISTICS:

Conspicuous – Before anyone gets around to reading a book, it must first pique reader’s interest enough to grab the book. Yes, an eye-catching cover may do the trick but think about it, the book cover may not be present during a discussion between readers when one person is recommending it to the other(s). Be it racy, divisive, over-the-top, or poignant, it must excite curiosity for the content. Meaning, it’s okay to get gimmicky here.

Memorable – Speaking of recommendations, name one item that is more dependent on end-user reviews than books. Word-of-mouth can move mountains [of books] for an author. However, for it to be effective, the book title must be easy to comprehend, quick to recall, and ready to roll off the recommender’s tongue, right? Similarly, the recipient of the recommendation will be more likely to give up the search for a book they can’t remember the title of because, after all, there is no dearth of reading materials out there.

Explanatory – The title should give the reader an idea of what the book is about. That is not to say it becomes a five-word summary of the story; rather the title should imply the genre, tone, and thematic subject of the book. Informative titles also make it stand out for relevant readers, i.e. readers who are specifically looking for literature that a book offers. Look at it this way, the only thing better than a #tag is the title!

Verbally Fluid – This links back to being memorable but it’s more than that. As already mentioned, the business of books is dependent on recommendations. Pack the title with words that have complex pronunciations or phrasing that plays tongue twister and the reader will be less inclined to passing on the good word to fellow book lovers.

Appealing – A provocative title may attract a lot of readers; even debatable titles gets a pass by inducing reader to engage and discover the other side of an argument. However, regardless of the stunt pulled to make the book title stand out, it must remain palatable. Maya Angelou’s insight “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” aptly applies to book titles. A title that makes a reader feel embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable, whether due to difficulty in pronunciation or by presenting a socially unacceptable viewpoint, will probably not be brought up in public. It’s also how books get burned.

No short order but these attributes may pave the road to success. Yet, authors often give the title less thought than due. Honestly, having come up with and written down a story to completion provides me with such a sense of accomplishment, I often feel as though my job is done. However, some of my transgressions have been more reckless. I’m not alien to feeling impatient towards the end of a writing project, especially one that has consumed more time than originally expected. And since I almost always wait until the end of the composition to title my stories… Well, you see where I’m going with this.

If only there was a STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO CRAFTING A BOOK TITLE. Hold on a second, could this be it?

Step 1: Finish writing the story first. Despite what I mentioned about my impetuous nature, I still recommend waiting until the completion of your story before sitting down to crack that title. The reason is, regardless of how well you have planned and plotted your story when starting the project, there is always a chance that by the time you reach the end, you may gain new perspective towards your work. Writing is a time-consuming task that gives you ample opportunity to grow as a person as well as an author – make the most of that growth when devising the title.

Step 2: Decide the main purpose of your book. Once the book is written, the central message of the story should become much clearer. A good way to sift through the salient points in the story is to discuss them with friends, critique partners, editors, etc. Now is the time to talk about your thoughts and feelings regarding the story you have written. The aspects of your story that the sample audience is most responsive to is probably a good indicator of what will work with a wider pool of readers and provide great angles for stimulating titles.

Step 3: Brainstorm. Step 2 is really there to take inventory of all that the story has to offer. Keeping in mind the relevance of the book for the target audience as distinguished while deciding its purpose, brainstorming is when you finally let loose your creativity to come up with a title that meets all the desired attributes mentioned above. But first, a few suggestions for the brainstorming session:

Keep a title jar. While ideally brainstorming for titles should be kept aside till you finish writing your story, you may very well notice a phrase befitting your book or be struck by inspiration amidst your project. Write it down and put it in a jar to come back to later.

Be mindful of the narrative voice and POV. The tone the narrator assumes and the POV through which the whole or majority of the story is related should be reflected in the title, as it plays an important role in informing the reader what to expect.

Keep it relevant. For that matter, the title should match both the story told and the audience targeted. Whether you’re banking on the central theme, protagonist’s identity, contextual symbolism, or a famous quote, the title must provide meaning to the story. At the same time, it helps to share similarities with successful titles in the genre of the book.

Don’t give away the ending. While the title should pique the reader’s curiosity and provide an insight into the theme, don’t undermine the plot by revealing too much even before the book is read. Allow the title to raise questions but make sure to withhold the answers.

Add hidden layers. Titles with double meanings, i.e. which touch upon evident motifs in the story as well as underlying themes and morals, are great for wowing the reader. While this ploy may not contribute to the reader picking up the book initially, it can provide an overall satisfaction in the reading experience, which the reader may retain and refer to others.

Don’t limit your options. During the brainstorming session, fill your title jar with as many possibilities as you can think of. Feel free to use both short and long phrases and explore the various sources (more on that below) from which you can lift ideas for the title.

Step 4: Narrow down to your favorites and run a self-test. Sound out the words to your shortlisted titles. Could any title benefit from alliteration? Does it provide the prospect for coining a phrase or new word? Is it clumsy or pleasant? These are just some of the details to keep your ears out for. Some titles may profit from a little rephrasing to make them less awkward; some of the longer ones may need shortening. They say the ideal fiction titles are limited to five words. I’m not sure how true that is but I have come to realize that action words create more impact and that using precise nouns and active verbs give reader the sense of delving into the story from the get-go.

Step 5: Make sure the title hasn’t been run ragged. Check Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia. Google it and see what comes up. Try to remain in the fold of your genre but do not blend in like sheep.

Step 6: Recruit title reviewers. Take your list of favorite title options and ask people what they think. Ideally, these people should have read your manuscript first so they are aware of the pertinent points of the story. Listen to their feedback carefully but with a grain of salt, then reevaluate your options.

Step 7: Make your final selection. Revisit Step 2 and see if the final title you have chosen fits the goal of your book.

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? So is true about most things that reap great benefits. The good news is that most of these steps can be performed by rote. In fact, the true challenge is convincing yourself that your book is worth your reader’s time because it is only when you have found your book’s purpose that you will be motivated to go through all the nitty-gritty of discovering the perfect title. So…

WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR BOOK TITLES?

Trending titles in the genre – Different genres take to different types of titles. Complex names often lend the right amount of gravitas to literary fictions but then may also require subtitles to provide context; historical romance novels tend to focus on the identity of the protagonist(s). Obviously, these titles are working with the targeted audiences in their respective genres. What’s not broke &c.

Thematic titles – In character-driven stories, thematic titles are used to present an idea of the protagonist’s journey. The focus is frequently on the conflict that adds to the MC’s struggles and injects mystery to the title by using metaphors or symbols associated with the said themes.

The MacGuffin – The MacGuffin, which represents the plot device or a desired objective for the protagonist, may also be a part of the title, as it also reflects upon the potential course of the story.

Protagonist’s name, role or traits – This is perhaps the more deliberate route taken to naming a character-driven story. Though simplistic and direct, the protagonist’s implied limitations can act as a strong stimulus for readers to identify with through the title and, thus, induce them to read the book to learn the protagonist’s fate.

A focus on fellowship – Some plot-driven stories revolve around the actions of a group of people that add to or reverse the course of the central conflict. In such cases, the contribution of no singular character is enough and, therefore, the title may feature a group of characters instead.

Unusual Setting – Where the major conflict or goal for the protagonist is presented in the form a place in the story, the title may assume the name of such a place.

Event – A significant event that starts or turns the course of a story is an excellent source for a title.

Famous words – Whether lifted from a song, a poem, or a quote, popular phrases seem to have a pleasant effect on titles, touching upon what the reader is already familiar with, and, hence, make such trendy titles.

From the manuscript – For that matter, why not list all your favorite lines in the book? Keywords or inspired phrases in the book that rightly express the essence of the story may just deserve their place in the spotlight.

A compelling story deserves a compelling title. It would be a sad state if after putting in all that work in writing a best-seller, the success is marred by a lackluster title. What do they say, in for a penny in for a pound? Well, having the perseverance to work on that title is well worth it.

So, how do you come up with your titles?

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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#AuthorToolbox 07: avoiding perfection

Via: Daily Prompt – Study & Loophole

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sainted characters. It all started when I sat down to watch John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher success Halloween for the first time [yes, truly]. After a month-long Christmas movie binge, I was ready to shake things up a bit and, although fully prepared to be blown away by the cult classic that apparently gave birth to so many of my favorite horror movies from the 90’s, twenty minutes in, it had me rolling my eyes and sighing in exasperation. Jamie Lee Curtis is Mary Sue:

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Media: Giphy

The Virginal Barbie: Despite being all shiny and blonde with a great body, Curtis’s character Laurie is the shy girl-next-door who can’t bring herself to divulge her feelings to the boy she likes, making her the unattached dream girl who won’t give a man any lip.

The Sharpest Tool in the Shed: Not only is she at the top of every class, she’s probably also psychic. She is the first to notice the man-in-the-mask watching her and her friends as well as the only one who continues to sense his foreboding proximity throughout the movie.

A Goody-Two-Shoes: She can’t break rules properly even when she tries. The one time she allows herself to be peer-pressured into smoking a little pot, she ends up right in front of the sheriff. Though her transgression goes unnoticed, she chooses to walk the straight and narrow for the rest of the movie.

The Old Reliable: She always picks up the slack. She can be counted on to drop off keys to a real estate client for her father, make popcorn for her babysitting charge, and relieve her best friend from babysitting duty while the said best friend spends the night doing the dirty.

It’s Lonely at the Top: Early on in the movie, we see her experiencing all the teen angst that accompanies an austere lifestyle and become sympathetic to her plight.

A Badass Martyr: Even when the killer slices open her arm, her first lookout is to make sure the kids are safe, maternal instinct in guerilla warfare mode. And she’s pretty resourceful with a knitting needle too. Who doesn’t love a girl who can simultaneously knit and kick butt when called to action?

DIE, FEMINISM, DIE! But, even aside from the misogynistic rigmarole, that is a tall order for any character. And while I accept that, in horror movies, death following sex is expected, by the end of the movie, I was convinced that the only reason Laurie survived was that she didn’t show any skin. By the end of the movie, I wanted to throw her out the bedroom window. Sadly, while I believe the makers of Halloween intended Laurie to be The-Li’l-Lady-That-Could, fiction writers are equally prone to creating accidental Mary Sues. I would have to say, tar me with the same brush.

MY TOO-PERFECT CHARACTER

Only, mine was a Gary Stu. When I first started writing I’ll Be True in 2012, I understood little about structuring plots, developing characters, weaving conflicts, or building tension, etc. I was confident I had a voice and was often praised for my diction, which was good enough to publish the first draft of my story on a public platform, a.k.a. this blog. Besides, I was too hopeful that having an actual audience would cure me of my habit of abandoning stories before they were finished being written. Embarrassing as it is to admit, it wasn’t until I wrote the entire novel and read back all twenty-six chapters to myself that I realized my protagonist’s romantic interest, who also happened to be the second MC, was insufferably unspoiled.

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Media: Tenor

Matthew Halls was a wish-fulfilling Mr. Perfect I had written when I was going through a rough patch in my longstanding relationship. He looked good on paper, was always the voice of reason, and had the luck of Indiana Jones with a heart the size of a blimp, talent oozing out of his pores, and sexual appeal enough to melt the staunchest woman’s core (which he promptly did). He had little in the way of challenges other than to convince the heroine that she loved him enough to call for a change in her attitude towards relationships. In other words, he was unreal, he had no character arc, and I was, literally, driven to tears of frustration. Worse, in the process of creating the perfect man, I committed the cardinal sin of treating my hero like a plot device. [His hideous magnificence remains unedited in my posts should anyone care to torture themselves]

WHY AVOID TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?

If the above examples of Mary Sue and Gary Stu do not convince, here’s how too-perfect protagonists may lead to bad fictions:

saintToo perfect to be human. Readers are everyday flawed people so a character who is free of flaws becomes unrealistic and one that is hard to relate to. Besides, it is very hard to sympathize with a holier-than-thou character in peril because they make us feel less than our best selves, so a reader would not feel as vested in seeing the character through to triumph.

No challenge too great. Too-perfect protagonists come with broad skillsets that make accomplishing goals and overcoming obstacles very easy for them and their one-dimensional quality boring for the readers. Plots are driven by conflicts and, with a Johnny-On-The-Spot, the tension never quite gets the opportunity to build up properly, which can cause the reader to disconnect too early.

Well, what’s there left to hope for? People want to read about ordinary characters persevere in extraordinary ways. A character in a similar or slightly better circumstances than the reader can motivate the reader’s aspirations towards life; conversely, a character who has all the assets one can desire to lead the perfect life might make a reader want to go to sleep and never wake up. After all, who can compete against Batman?

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Media: Me.Me.

To be fair to us, authors, it’s too tempting to write the too-perfect character. Even if we, ourselves, do not fit the mold of our ideal person [because, really, who does?], we wish to see it come alive somewhere – live [vicariously] a little. Writing heroes is also more comfortable than writing anti-heroes or villains because subconsciously we are worried how that might reflect on us as human beings. If we do remember to sand the edges by inserting a couple of character flaws, we are just as quick to make excuses for them. Should we write them real challenges, as creators, it is in our nature to mother them into victory.

At our worst self, we’re lazy and don’t want to sweat by putting in the level of thought and work hours necessary to clean up after a messy character: Stories are made of struggles; struggles need solving; someone’s gotta do it; why not Mary Sue? But every time we throw miracles in our character’s path, we are chiseling away at the compelling story we could be writing. As an outsider looking in, readers tend to discover conflicts sooner and notice opportunities for resolution faster than the characters themselves, which may prompt vexation in the reader but also cause them to hold on.

 

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Media: SpudComic

Think about it, how often have you groaned during the stairwell chase scene when the protagonist runs up the stairs to get away from the predator? It seems their gut instinct should be to run down and let gravity do most of the work as they look for the quickest exit from hell. Unless, of course, the character is Batman, in which case he wouldn’t be running or, if he did, he has probably already sent out a signal and the Batplane is waiting for him by the rooftop. As a kid, I had promised myself that I would learn to drive, ride a motorbike as well as a horse, and hotwire a car, just so if I ever needed to escape a villain, I would be all set. I haven’t yet learned to do any of that, am clinically overweight that I’m too lazy to remedy, and have low stamina that I blame on my intellectually-inclined personality. If my life was a novel and I a Girl Scout, I’d be the first to be eaten by a bear during camp. So… obviously not the protagonist of my own story.

 

HOW TO AVOID WRITING TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?

The good news is, if caught in time, an author can put a flawless character back in his box. It requires careful examination and takes a few nips and tucks to fix perfection but it can be done:

Give. Them. Flaws. Well, that’s obvious, but here are a few tips to remember as you do –

  • It’s best not to depend on flaws that are superficial or an in indirect praise such as a crooked nose (who’re you kidding; you know that’s sexy) or being a total klutz (wasn’t Meg Ryan absolutely adorable in French Kiss). The surest way to make the flaw compelling for the readers is to ensure that it is mired in the character’s past and has had time to fester to become a real problem.
  • The flaw shouldn’t be too blatant or exaggerated. Flaws lose credibility when demonstrated in absolute so they should never be dealt as such, unless the intention is to mock. Most people work in gray areas and so should the character’s flaws. Only sociopaths are completely sure of themselves all the time.
  • The flaw needs to be persistent until the character learns to reign it in, which should happen at approximately the same time as the plot reaches resolution. The last thing the story needs is the narrator telling the reader about the character’s flaw but when the time comes to show, the character works in an opposite manner.
  • A flaw that connects back to the central conflict in the plot is a great flaw. Flaws bear significance to the story when they cause the character to take a misstep that challenges their goals.

For that matter, stop fixating on their endowments. Yeah, yeah, he’s hot-stuff but must she swoon every time he walks into the room? The more words are spent describing the protagonist’s pros, the less time is used to show their cons.

Turn their strengths into a source of weakness. Shakespeare was a genius in romanticizing flaws. The same qualities that would establish a character as a hero in the beginning of a play would cause their tragic demise by the end. E.g. the bravery and determination that returns Macbeth victorious from war transforms into unchecked ambition where he kills the king he swore to serve before turning mad with guilt and paranoia, which eventually leads to a bloodbath under his tyrannical rule and then his death.

Make them do something you find truly objectionable. This may even be out of character where the one time they do something wrong, they get caught and then are left picking up the pieces for the rest of the story.

Put them back in the real world. The universe, even one existing in a fantasy, is governed by its own laws, which no character is above. As such, when the character defies the rules of this universe, there should be repercussions for the character to deal with. Their actions will have an effect on other characters just as they must be affected by it.

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Media: Giphy

Avoid deus ex machinas. Remember that one time when we were driving down the I-10 and were almost abducted by aliens but then a pterodactyl swooped in and ate the aliens before flying off into the sunset? Yeah, never happened. Not even on The X-Files. Sudden supreme forces that step in without preamble to save the day for the protagonist just make the plot ridiculous.

Pass some of your character’s skills to others. The protagonist can’t be an expert on everything or be everywhere at the same time – nor should you ask them of it. Instead, insert other characters into the story who are able to take over some of the protagonist’s responsibilities. Even Harry had Ron and Hermione; and Dumbledore and the Order of Phoenix and the DA and Snape and a bunch of other dead guys, etc.

What I’m trying to say is, in case you lost the plot in that circuitous ramble, unless you have decided that a Mary Sue/Gary Stu works for your story, they best be avoided. But, hey! as the original Mary Sue was written as a satire to parody the unrealistic heroines in some of the early Star Trek fanfictions, sometimes they can be the key ingredient to a successful story.

Whew! My obvious flaw is the inability to edit because this has gone on for long enough. But I would love to read about what are your thoughts on too-perfect characters.

Perhaps there is a Mary Sue that you feel spoiled a story for you or one that worked out really well? Or, like me, maybe you once wrote a Gary Stu who you eventually had to kill but who imparted you with great insight before his death?

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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#AuthorToolbox 06: oh character! how thou meow?

Via: Daily Prompt – Loyal

 

Dangerous Tiger Big Cat Panthera Tigris Predator

Image: Max Pixel

 

 

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Image: Tenor

In preparation for the new season of Supernatural, I was recently watching some of the casts’ Comic-Con videos on YouTube when this member of the audience got up and asked if Jensen Ackles ever falls into his character Dean when handling everyday situations such as, if his car was to be overtaken by another vehicle and he needed to vent his frustration, would he shout at the offender and say – ok, I can’t write that here. But the fan did a perfect imitation of Dean Winchester, from words to tone to pitch, that even Ackles had to praise it – though with startled bemusement. In any case, it got me to wondering, how well do we know the characters we write? How often do our characters reach that level of consistency and distinguishability where a reader would be able to immediately connect a dialogue or thought to a particular character? Because that, my friends, is where we know we’ve got it made.

 

Earlier this year, I blogged about what the writing voice is and how I discovered mine. In essence, to me, the writing voice is the culmination of one’s writing style and their purpose of writing. The same goes for the voices of the characters we develop. Who are the characters we write really and why are they even there? To reiterate the above, in order to ensure each of our characters have a distinct and consistent voice, we need to truly know them – know them the way we would know how a really close friend or relative will react to a situation and know them outside of ourselves so that the author’s voice does not overlap with the character’s.

Easier said than done but not impossible. Here’s how:

The Interview. To an outsider, it might seem totally nutty that an author hosts little tête-à-têtes with his/her characters but this is one of the most common advice I have received at any writing circle, official or among Twitter friends, whenever I stumbled across a block with a character. What better way to find out who your character is than to simply ask them, am I right? This, of course, would have been easier if the character in question (excuse the pun) wasn’t a figment of my imagination. But to make the process less convoluted, a good place to start asking questions is their opinion of other characters they interact within the story and the various issues they face. The various lookouts (list below), then, during such an interview would be to monitor the emotional intensity with which the character responds to each question, make notes of the nuances delivered, and then ask follow up questions based on the responses.

 

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Accept Them For Who They Are. Your questions answered, you must learn to not become judgmental by what you have discovered about your character. You may ask me, how can an author disapprove of the character he/she has created but I have seen this happen in works of others and have been guilty of it a few times myself. It is that moment in your story when you start to exposit on why a certain character behaves a certain way to distance yourself from that character – to show that this character is obviously not you and that you would never behave that way. Don’t do that. Remember, you are not in the story so your readers know better than to attribute your character’s flaws and fears on to you. More importantly, your character is the way they are because the traits they embrace are relevant to the plot as well as the relationship dynamics of your story. Let them be who they are, for authenticity’s sake. Also, if you do not remain faithful to your creation, no one else will.

 

Take Them Out For A Spin. If an interview does not do the trick, it’s time to really get crazy. Do a little exercise with your character such as having them over for company for a week and taking notes of how you imagine they would behave in everyday situations, positive and negative, that you face during that time. It will allow you to become accustomed to their reactions to the world and help you get into their mindset. You may crank it up by actually behaving like your character and then including in your notes how others respond to you as well. [Full disclosure, while actors do it all the time, I have to really bring out my inner prankster to get that wicked.] Alternatively, something simpler like having the character write a letter to you or another character in the story to see how they relate to others is also useful though perhaps not as stimulating.

Ok, I’m fresh out of techniques here, really. Truth be told, the interview method has been working well for me so far. On that note, here is the query form I have pieced together over time that seems to get me through to my characters (or is it, get my characters through to me):

  • What is the character’s mode of address? Formal or informal? Does the mannerism persist from their upbringing, education, or profession, etc.?
  • For that matter, what kind of education has the character received and how has this affected their level of intelligence and intellect, thought pattern and speech?
  • What is the character’s cultural background and what impact could it have on their vocabulary? Does it fall into a particular dialect? Does the character allow this vocabulary/dialect to show during their speech? If not, why not?
  • What is the character’s speech pattern? Do they use short or long sentences? Are the words they use vernacular or profound? Why?
  • How emphatic is the character? Do they emphasize on their words to prove their point?
  • Is the character cynical or naive, full of satire or respectful? How do they observe the world around them? How does it affect the way they speak? Are they gruff or humorous, edgy or laid back?
  • What is the character’s general disposition towards others? Is the character prone to profanities or graciousness?
  • How quick to response is the character? Does it make them naturally witty or aggressive?
  • Is there any maxim that the character lives by that affects their behavior? Or else, does the character resort to any catchphrase or verbal tics?

To wit, how the character thinks and behaves and speaks depends on who they are, for which the author needs to really sort out the attributes and backstory of the character. The character’s voice is very much also connected to the POV(s) used in the narrative and it is up to the author how much of the character’s voice they will allow to seep into the prose when writing from a certain character’s viewpoint. Whatever the decision, dialogue or action or thought, consistency and distinction is the key.

Before I leave off, I invite you to share any other method you use to find your character’s voice.

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

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42 Comments

#AuthorToolbox 05: cranking up the tension

Via: Daily Post – Tentative & Flavorful

Writing page-turning unputdownable literature is what every author aspires to. A reader can pay few greater compliments than to say a book had kept them up all night – perhaps at the risk of going about their following day with weary eyes but a mind still churning from the residual adrenaline. What motivates a reader to commit to such happy exertion? Tension.

TENSION ON SURFACE LEVEL

Tension evokes an emotional connection between the reader and the character(s). It compels the reader to assume the interests of the character(s) as his or her own. It may even elicit physical responses in the reader as it coils and unfurls with the progression of the story – quickened breath as the stakes are raised, sigh of relief after the climax has come to pass. However, it is not to be confused with conflict.

CONFLICT AND TENSION

I’ll admit that until very recently, I believed tension and conflict to be interchangeable since they tend to work in close association. To be more accurate, conflict often leads to tension but tension is not an inevitable end of conflict. Conflict constitutes of more evident elements within the story, i.e. forces acting against each other to prevent a character from achieving his/her goal(s); tension works in the abstract and can be best defined as the anticipation that is aroused and quieted via the pieces of information that is gradually revealed during the storytelling process. Conflict is a movement within the plot that provides the story with a reason for being; tension succeeds in moving the reader in tempo of the plot by hinting at “possibilities” of what could be. However, while it is ideal that conflict helps to build tension and, thus, the reader’s need to discover “what’s next”, once again, this is only possible where the reader has formed an emotional  connection with the characters, scenes, and situations in the story.

TENSION ADDING LAYERS

And since tension is build upon the uncertainty and anticipation of what is to come, it may work at various levels – from creating a momentum where the character(s) and reader absolutely share in the emotional undertaking to where the experience is exclusive to the reader – depending on how much information of the story is revealed to either/both the character(s) and the reader. Tension may exist within a particular character (inner turmoil of the protagonist), between characters (information gap resulting in misunderstanding), in every scene (moving the story forward or backward), and in the overall story (central conflict that moves towards a climax and resolution). In some instances, tension may also exist between the narrator and reader to which the character(s) may remain absolutely oblivious (an unreliable narrator perpetuating a deception). However, whatever form in which tension reveals itself to the reader, it is a vital ingredient in storytelling that ensures the author has captured the audience for the duration of the tale and, as authors, we had best know how to use it.

STIRRING UP TENSION

Characters & Conflicts That Matter. The reader is bound to be more invested in the story if it depicts character(s) with whom the reader is able to relate. Also the reader needs to be able to believe in the stakes that are raised when imposing the challenges on the character(s). When the characters are interesting and dynamic and the conflicts are compelling, the reader’s interest is piqued.

Secrets & Hesitations. A common cause for tension between characters in stories is the failure to impart relevant information. If characters made a point of always being open and honest with one another, seven out ten of challenges to their sustainable relationship would probably resolve before even occurring. And we would have no story. So instead, authors cultivate a sense of insecurity that induce character(s) to hide information from their various counterparts. In return, such actions not only spread misunderstanding but also a sense of secrecy that may lead to distrust. When villainy is the objective of the day, a character may willfully withhold information to foil the bliss of the hero/heroine. Such gaps in knowledge within the realm of the tale may lead to the audience to commiserate in the woes of the character(s), motivating them to see it through to the end.

Audience Knows More. Often the narrator reveals facts sooner to the audience than to the character(s). As an outsider, the reader is privy to information that an omniscient narrator possesses but of which not all the characters are yet aware. Reader knows what to expect whereas the characters do not and the tension builds around the uncertainty of how soon will the characters figure out the truth for themselves and how they will react when they do. In such a case, a sense of superiority may also act upon the reader to stick to the story. However, when applying this mode, the narrative must be arranged in a context where the truth would not be as obvious to the character(s) as to the reader.

A Gradual Reveal. While the audience may anticipate situations sooner than the characters in the story, it is also important not to show one’s hand too soon. Pacing the narrative where only fragments of information is revealed at a time can proliferate the reader’s innate desire to solve the mystery.

Forward & Retreat. Even as the plot progresses, scenes may be written to divert the characters from reaching resolution. New challenges may be added even as old ones are managed or the character’s stakes in the outcome may be raised.

The Right Atmosphere. Sometimes it all just boils down to the setting. Tension in the world surrounding the reader may filter into the character’s life. Admit it, walking down an empty corridor in your workplace during the day would feel relatively innocuous when compared to walking down the same empty corridor one evening when you had to stay back late. If we manage to successfully spook ourselves in real life, the same anxiety born of a sense self-preservation exists in the characters we write. On the other hand, in such a situation, which reader wouldn’t want to vicariously investigate the passing shadow of a person in the periphery of the character’s vision?

A Clipped & Monosyllabic Style. An author may also inject tension into the writing style. Using shorter words and sentences may pack a punch to a tense scene that profound and roundabout passages could miss out on. It is the same rule that applies when developing a character who is meant to be foreboding. And since I must, take Mr. Darcy for example. Mr. Darcy was intense and he hardly ever said a word in the initial acts of Pride and Prejudice unless he was forced to and, even when he began to open up a little, it was only to pontificate on topics most essential to his own self-worth and salvation.

P.S. ON TENSION

However tension is implemented in the story, the author must also ensure there is a balance on when and how much tension the reader is exposed to. Tension must be given opportunity to ebb and flow so as not to overtax the reader. Just as tightening the tension can propel the reader to continue turning the pages, reader must be allowed moments of reprieve to release some of the tension without having to put down the book.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL MAY NOT BE A GRIPPING READ BUT THE SUBJECT IS NECESSARY AND RELEVANT NEVERTHELESS.

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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#AuthorToolbox 04: the art of landscaping in fiction writing

Via: Daily Prompt – Soil

The cold was bitter, different from New England’s. Outside the city the wind spilled across the sweeping, open land dotted with abandoned farm machinery and old houses buckling in on themselves. You wouldn’t think such houses were habitable, but once in a while there would be a tacked-up sheet in the doorway, or plastic nailed over the windows, and the trace of smoke from a chimney.”

~ Brown, Karen. “The Clairvoyants.” Henry Holt and Co., 2017

51htld99dbl-_sx328_bo1204203200_I finished reading this book over the weekend. And like most well-written (or poorly written, for that matter) novels throughout my reading experience, it left me with a heightened sense of awareness of that “something-something” to consciously add to in my own work. After all, authors learn by reading the works of other authors. I thought, for this month’s blog hop, I would review some of this novel’s more beautifully written passages to summarize how fiction can be enhanced by adding descriptive imageries that are carefully composed and artfully woven to match the subject of the story [I’ll try my best to titillate without giving away any irrevocable spoilers]:

Relevance. Without a doubt, the prose was the strongest suit in The Clairvoyants. Brown approached its various outdoor and indoor sceneries to set the mood for this novel with poetic gusto, addressing both the mental state of the story’s protagonist, Martha, and the themes that adhered to the overall plot, i.e. an observant and slightly self-absorbed young woman with the ability to “see dead people” and a sense of victimhood towards her entire life, who stumbles upon a potential murder mystery when she is abandoned in a new environment. In fact, the landscape mirrors the one prevailing ethos of every character in the novel, who make a motley group of disturbingly selfish individuals, gravitating towards one another in search of companionship one moment and then forsaking each other the next.

Now, beyond my mother’s profile at the wheel of the car, Route 79 wound alongside green swaths of hills still damp from the recent rain. This was an isolated valley with a poor yearly sunlight allotment and haphazard cell phone reception—another version of a sanatorium, a place my mother could tuck me away, the way you pressed a photograph into the back of a drawer—and be free of me. But I might be free of her, too, and I might find someone else to love me.”

Precision. A bit of mastery in the medium of your writing can go a long way – and, of course, shorten the sentences. Words hold connotations that pose parity even among synonyms. Instead of depending on generic nouns and verbs to describe each action, character, object, or surrounding, knowing specific words to allocate to them will not only contribute to their appropriate portrayal but also provide the reader with a richer sensory experience. Obviously, this means having a strong vocabulary is important but does it also mean you need to swallow the dictionary? If you can, kudos to you; otherwise, do a little extra research on each subject matter you introduce in the story, as Brown has in this novel when labeling architectural attributes.

The house stood on a street of similarly grand old places, each shaded by a tree, their roots disrupting the cement sidewalks in front. Mine was a brick Italianate house with a wide cornice and elaborately carved brackets and window caps. The apartment was up a staircase that once might have been glamorous when the house was still a single-family residence. The place had been advertised as a “studio.” I would be living in one room with a twelve-foot ceiling, a decorative fireplace, and an efficiency-sized stove, sink, and refrigerator—so small they seemed like playhouse furnishings.”

Economy. We all know about the taboo on overusing adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are to be preserved for blurbs, and yet, funnily, that is where authors tend to scrimp thanks to a misguided sense of modesty – but that is a topic for another day. Furthering the argument for precision, knowing specific nouns and verbs is particularly useful when editing redundant descriptors that only serve to weaken and obscure the image you are trying to depict.  Consequently, you may also reveal more information about the plot and characters when relinquishing modifiers.

I had thought he wanted me. But when I touched him he took my hands away, like a correcting parent. I was resigned to kissing him, and even that he interrupted with a story about his motorcycle, a Triumph he was eager to ride again in the spring.”

POV. At every turn, it is crucial to ask oneself if the character whose POV is being used to narrate a scene, would actually experience the situation in that manner. For example, cold is a recurring premise in the novel, of which Martha is constantly aware. Other than simply using it to describe the winter that persists throughout the plot or the relationship fostered among the characters (and the wide range of dead people, in retrospect), Brown also associates it with how Martha undergoes the changes in her life or encounters new phenomena, e.g. when she tries martini for the first time.

I admitted I’d never had one, and she insisted I sample hers. She held her glass toward me by its stem, and I took a cautious sip. I said it was like drinking partially melted snow, and she laughed and poured me one, too.”

Pace. While the vivid narration is what I enjoyed most about the novel, the accompanied tangential style also led to its biggest holdback. I could fully understand why, given that the novel was written in first-person and people tend to digress when relating their experiences, Martha would oscillate between her past and present, actions and expositions. In fact, it even added to the mystery. But at one point, this became monotonous when the tempo should have picked up. The mystery began to chase its own tail and Martha’s continued attention to the mundane details of her surrounding seemed unnatural, relatability yielding before consistency, such as while escaping the scene of a supposed murder.

We drove through farmland spread for miles in either direction. Del fiddled with the radio, her hand shaking, and found a station playing Dixieland jazz, and we passed through a landscape distorted by the windshield ice—the wide open space, the few remaining outbuildings of an old farm, their gray, splintery wood darkened by the sleet, jutting like carcasses. “There are bones of families out there,” I said. Spread under layers of soil, compacted in their separateness. The Dixieland band played its tinny hopefulness. We drove this way for a long time until we could see nothing of the land we passed through save an occasional kitchen light in a house set off the road. Then we reached an intersection, a small town, like Milton, with a gas station and a diner, and Del pulled into the diner’s parking lot. After David Pinney died we’d gone on, pretending he hadn’t. I could say we were murderers now. This didn’t happen to other people twice.”

To wit, this novel made me sit up and take notes. My own stories tend to consist more of dialogues and actions than discussions on the setting but I could certainly appreciate the patience with which Brown weighed in the haunting atmosphere in her narrative. It reminded me of something I learned a few months back while attending an online course on writing fiction. There was a lot of emphasis on note taking and journal keeping throughout the syllabus. Until I took the course, I always wondered how writers sit in public places such as cafes and parks while composing tales without becoming distracted by their environments. Turns out they don’t become distracted at all because they are too busy recounting what they witness on their pages and screens.

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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33 Comments

#AuthorToolbox 03: head-hopping and migraines

 

In my twentieth installation of WRITING CHRONICLES, I went into great details about the various types of narrators and POVs that may be used in storytelling. A perusal will tell you that jumping POVs in the middle of scenes is one of my pet peeves. Of course, a scene may be told from the perspective of different characters but there are proper etiquettes to these things. When you are having a conversation with someone, how much would you enjoy being interrupted by the other person while talking? Or worse, if a third party straggler just decided to insert themselves into your discussion midway? The narrator and the reader develop a bond over the course of a story that requires similar decorum. Each character must wait their turn to have their say.  Read the rest of this entry »

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#AuthorToolboxBlogHop 02: First Impressions

Last week, in the 17th installation of my Writing Chronicles, I discussed the various ways to “Punish Your Protagonist“. I thought this week, I would make up for it by talking about how to Save the First Chapter.

Wherever you look, literary agents and editors impart a few golden rules: research the agent/editor before you submit your query, provide an economic-yet-comprehensive synopsis of your story in the cover letter, and make sure your manuscript is ready when you send in those first three chapters. In other words, try not to waste this rare opportunity to be read by a professional. Your book’s opening will decide if your story gets picked or tossed.

Getting the first chapter wrong is a piece of cake. We’re writers – an absentminded-yet-observant breed riddled with insecurities throughout our creative process and beyond. Even when we get the story right, we know it could have been better. It can always be better. But with a few simple precautions, that first chapter can be GOOD. What is better than good?

Here’s my two-cents’ worth to a workable first chapter:  Read the rest of this entry »

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